When Canadian astronomer Robert Weryk discovered `Oumuamua passing through our Solar System with the Pan-STARRS telescope, in October 2017, it caused quite a stir. It was the first interstellar object we’d ever seen coming through our neighbourhood. The excitement led to speculation: what could it be?
There was lots of fun conjecture on its origins. Was it an alien spacecraft? A solar sail? Or something more prosaic?
There are bad days, and then there are really bad days. 65 million years ago, life on Earth – especially if you were a dinosaur – experienced the worst possible bad day, as a giant meteor came crashing down to the surface of our planet, unleashing an inferno followed by decades of nuclear winter. And the worst part? It didn’t have to be so bad.
Astronomers are increasingly interested in Near-Earth Objects, or NEOs. There are ongoing efforts to find them all and catalog them all, and to find out which ones might pose a collision threat. Now some astronomers with the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey have found a new, tiny, temporary moon for Earth.
When Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft arrived at asteroid Ryugu in June 2018, it carried four small rovers with it. Hayabusa 2 is primarily a sample-return mission, but JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) sent rovers along to explore the asteroid’s surface and learn as much as they could from their visit. There’s also no guarantee that the sample return will be successful.
They chose Ryugu because the asteroid is classified as a primitive carbonaceous asteroid. This type of asteroid is a desirable target because it represents the primordial matter that formed the bodies in our Solar System. It’s also pretty close to Earth.
The sample from Ryugu, which will make it to Earth in December 2020, is the big science prize from this mission. Analyzing it in Earth-based laboratories will tell us a lot more than spacecraft instruments can. But the rovers that landed on Ryugu’s surface have already revealed a lot about Ryugu.
Right now, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency‘s (JAXA) Hayabusa2 spacecraft is busy exploring the asteroid 162173 Ryugu. Like it’s predecessor, this consists of a sample-return mission, where regolith from the asteroid’s surface will be brought back home for analysis. In addition to telling us more about the early Solar System, these studies are expected to shed light on the origin of Earth’s water (and maybe even life).
Meanwhile, scientists here at home have been busy examining the samples returned from 25143 Itokawa by the Hayabusa1spacecraft. Thanks to a recent study by a pair of cosmochemists from Arizona State University (ASU), it is now known that this asteroid contained abundant amounts of water. From this, the team estimates that up to half the water on Earth could have come from asteroid and comet impacts billions of years ago.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has reached its destination and is now in orbit around asteroid Bennu. The spacecraft travelled for over two years and covered more than 2 billion kms. It will spend a year in orbit, surveying the surface of the Potentially Hazardous Object (PHO) before settling on a location for the key phase of its mission: a sample return to Earth.
In fact, the question of this interstellar object’s origins has been mystery since it was first discovered. While astronomers are sure that it came from the direction of Vega and some details have been learned about its past, where it originated from remains unknown. But according to a new study by a team of astronomers from the University of Toronto, Scarborough, ‘Oumuamua may have originally come from a binary star system.
For the sake of their study, Jackson and his co-authors considered how in single star systems (like our own), asteroids do not get ejected very often. For the most part, it is comets that become interstellar objects, mainly because they orbit the Sun at a greater distance and are less tightly bound by its gravity. And while ‘Oumuamua was initially mistaken for a comet, follow-up observations by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) indicated that it is likely an asteroid.
With the help of other astronomers, it soon became apparent that ‘Oumuamua was likely an oddly-shaped rocky object that measured about 400 meters (1312 ft) long and was tube-shaped. These findings were rather surprising to astronomers. As Jackson explained in a recent Royal Astronomical Society press release:
“It’s really odd that the first object we would see from outside our system would be an asteroid, because a comet would be a lot easier to spot and the Solar System ejects many more comets than asteroids.”
As such, Jackson and his team hypothesized that interstellar objects like ‘Oumuamau are more likely to be ejected from a binary system. To test this theory, they constructed a population synthesis model that considered just how common binary star systems are in the Galaxy. They also conducted 2000 N-body simulations to see just how efficient such systems would be at ejecting objects like ‘Oumuamua.
What they found was that binary stars are produced at a rate of about 30% by number and 41% by mass, and that rocky objects like ‘Oumuamua are far more likely to be ejected from binary than single star systems. Based on ‘Oumuamua’s rocky composition, they also determined that the asteroid was likely ejected from the inner part of its solar system (i.e. inside the “Ice Line”) while the system was still in the process of formation.
Lastly, they determined that rocky objects are ejected from binary systems in comparable numbers to icy objects. This is based on the fact that the presence of a companion star would mean that more material would become unstable due to stellar encounters. In the end, this material would be more likely to be ejected rather than accreted to form planets, or take up residence in the outer reaches of the star system.
While there are still many unanswered questions about ‘Oumuamua, it remains the first interstellar asteroid that scientists have ever known. As such, its continued study can tell us a great deal about what lies beyond our Solar System. As Jackson put it:
“The same way we use comets to better understand planet formation in our own Solar System, maybe this curious object can tell us more about how planets form in other systems.”
Back in October, the announcement of the first interstellar asteroid triggered a flurry of excitement. Since that time, astronomers have conducted follow-up observations of the object known as 1I/2017 U1 (aka. `Oumuamua) and noted some rather interesting things about it. For example, from rapid changes in its brightness, it has been determined that the asteroid is rocky and metallic, and rather oddly-shaped.
Observations of the asteroid’s orbit have also revealed that it made its closest pass to our Sun back in September of 2017, and it is currently on its way back to interstellar space. Because of the mysteries this body holds, there are those who are advocating that it be intercepted and explored. One such group is Project Lyra, which recently released a study detailing the challenges and benefits such a mission would present. Continue reading “Project Lyra, a Mission to Chase Down that Interstellar Asteroid”
On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) telescope in Hawaii picked up the first interstellar asteroid, named 1I/2017 U1 (aka. `Oumuamua). After originally being mistaken for a comet, observations performed by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and other astronomers indicated that it was actually an asteroid that measures about 400 meters (1312 ft) long.
The VLT was intrinsic to the combined effort to characterize the fast-moving asteroid rapidly, as it needed to be observed before it passed back into interstellar space again. Based on initial calculations of `Oumuamua’s orbit, astronomers had determined that it had already passed the closest point in its orbit to the Sun in September of 2017. Together with other large telescopes, the VLT captured images of the asteroid using its FORS instrument.
What these revealed was that `Oumuamua varies dramatically in terms of brightness (by a factor of ten) as it spins on its axis every 7.3 hours. As Dr. Meech explained in an ESO press release, this was both surprising and highly significant:
“This unusually large variation in brightness means that the object is highly elongated: about ten times as long as it is wide, with a complex, convoluted shape. We also found that it has a dark red colour, similar to objects in the outer Solar System, and confirmed that it is completely inert, without the faintest hint of dust around it.”
These observations also allowed Dr. Meech and her team to constrain Oumuamua’s composition and basic properties. Essentially, the asteroid is now believed to be a dense and rocky asteroid with a high metal content and little in the way of water ice. It’s dark and reddened surface is also an indication of tholins, which are the result of organic molecules (like methane) being irradiated by cosmic rays for millions of years.
Unlike other asteroids that have been studied in Near-Earth space and the Solar System at large, `Oumuamua is unique in that it is not bound by the Sun’s gravity. In addition to originating outside of our Solar System, its hyperbolic orbit – which has an eccentricity of 1.2 – means that it will head back out into interstellar space after its brief encounter with our Solar System.
Based on preliminary calculations of its orbit, astronomers have deduced that it came from the general direction of Vega, the brightest star in the northern constellation of Lyra. Traveling at a whopping speed of 95,000 km/hour (59,000 mph), `Oumuamua would have left the Vega system about 300,000 years ago. However, it is also possible that the asteroid may have originated somewhere else entirely, wandering the Milky Way for millions of years.
Astronomers estimate that interstellar asteroids like `Oumuamua pass through the inner Solar System at a rate of about once a year. But until now, they have been too faint and difficult to detect in visible light, and have therefore gone unnoticed. It is only recently that survey telescopes like Pan-STARRS have been powerful enough to have a chance at detecting them.
Hence what makes this discovery so significant in the first place. As the first asteroid of its kind to be detected, further improvements in our instruments will it make it easier to spot the others that are sure to be on the way. And as Olivier Hainaut – a researcher with the ESO and a co-author on the study – indicated, there’s plenty more to be learned from `Oumuamua as well:
“We are continuing to observe this unique object, and we hope to more accurately pin down where it came from and where it is going next on its tour of the galaxy,” he said. “And now that we have found the first interstellar rock, we are getting ready for the next ones!”
And be sure to enjoy this ESOcast video about `Oumuamua, courtesy of the ESO:
Beyond the Earth-Moon system, thousands of asteroids known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) are known to exist. These rocks periodically cross Earth’s orbit and make close a flyby of Earth. Over the course of millions of years, some even collide with the Earth, causing mass extinctions. Little wonder then why NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) is dedicated to monitoring the larger objects that occasionally come close to our planet.
One of these objects is 2012 TC4, a small and oblong-shaped NEO that was first spotted in 2012 during a close flyby of Earth. During its most recent flyby – which took place on Thursday, October 12th,2017 – an international team of astronomers led by NASA scientists used the opportunity to conduct the first international exercise to test global responses to an impending asteroid strike.
This exercise was known as the “TC4 Observation Campaign“, which began this past July and concluded with the asteroid flyby. It all began when astronomers at the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Paranal Observatory in Chile used the Very Large Telescope (VLT) to recover 2012 TC4. When the asteroid made its final close approach to Earth in mid-October, it passed Earth by at a distance of 43,780 km (27,200 mi).
The goal of this exercise was simple: recover, track and characterize a real asteroid as if it were likely to collide with Earth. In addition, the exercise was an opportunity to test the International Asteroid Warning Network, which conducts observations of potentially hazardous asteroids, attempts to model their behavior, make predictions, and share these findings with institutions around the world.
On Oct. 12th, TC4 flew by Earth at roughly 0.11 times the distance between Earth and the Moon. In the months leading up to the flyby, astronomers from the US, Canada, Columbia, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Russia and South Africa tracked TC4 from the ground. At the same time, space-based telescopes studied the asteroid’s orbit, shape, rotation and composition.
“This campaign was an excellent test of a real threat case. I learned that in many cases we are already well-prepared; communication and the openness of the community was fantastic. I personally was not prepared enough for the high response from the public and media – I was positively surprised by that! It shows that what we are doing is relevant.”
Based on their observations, scientists at CNEOS – which is located at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – were able to determine all the necessary characteristics of TC4. This included its precise orbit, the distance it would pass by Earth on Oct. 12th, and discern if there was any possibility of a future impact. As Davide Farnocchia, a member of CNEOS who led the effort to determine the asteroid’s orbit, explained:
“The high-quality observations from optical and radar telescopes have enabled us to rule out any future impacts between the Earth and 2012 TC4. These observations also help us understand subtle effects such as solar radiation pressure that can gently nudge the orbit of small asteroids.”
Multiple observatories also dedicated their optical telescopes to studying how fast TC4 rotates. As Eileen Ryan – the director of the Magdalena Ridge Observatory, which conducted observations of the asteroids rotation – indicated, “The rotational campaign was a true international effort. We had astronomers from several countries working together as one team to study TC4’s tumbling behavior.”
What they found that the small asteroid rotated slowly, which was rather surprising. Whereas small asteroids typically rotate very quickly, TC4 had a rotational period of just 12 minutes, and also appeared to be tumbling. Other observations revealed some interesting things about the shape of TC4.
These were conducted by astronomers using NASA’s Goldstone Deep Space Network antenna in California, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory‘s Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. Their reading helped refine size estimates of the asteroid, indicating that it is elongated and measures approximately 15 meters (50 ft) long and 8 meters (25 feet) wide.
Determining TC4’s composition was more challenging. Due to unfavorable weather conditions that coincided with the flyby, instruments like NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) at the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii were unable to get a good look at the asteroid. However, spectra was obtained on the asteroid that indicated that it has a rocky body, which means it is an S-type asteroids.
Typically, ground-based elements determine an asteroid’s composition based on their color. Whereas dark asteroids are known for being carbon-rich (C-type), bright asteroids are predominantly composed of silicate minerals (S-type). As Lance Benner, who led the radar observations at JPL, explained:
“Radar has the ability to identify asteroids with surfaces made of highly reflective rocky or metallic materials. We were able to show that radar scattering properties are consistent with a bright rocky surface, similar to a particular class of meteorites that reflect as much as 50 percent of the light falling on them.”
In addition to the observation campaign, NASA used TC4’s latest flyby as an opportunity to test communications between observatories, as well as the internal messaging and communications system that is currently in place. This network connects various government agencies and the executive branch and would come into play in the event of a predicted impact emergency.
According to Vishnu Reddy, an assistant professor from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory who led the observation campaign, this aspect of the exercise “demonstrated that we could organize a large, worldwide observing campaign on a short timeline, and communicate results efficiently.”Michael Kelley, the TC4 exercise lead at NASA Headquarters in Washington, added,”We are much better prepared today to deal with the threat of a potentially hazardous asteroid than we were before the TC4 campaign.”
Last, but not least, was the way the exercise brought scientists and institutions from all around the world together for a single purpose. As Boris Shustov – the science director for the Institute of Astronomy at the Russian Academy of Sciences, who was also part of the exercise – indicated, the exercise was an excellent way to test how the world’s scientific institutions would go about prepping for a possible asteroid impact:
“The 2012 TC4 campaign was a superb opportunity for researchers to demonstrate willingness and readiness to participate in serious international cooperation in addressing the potential hazard to Earth posed by NEOs. I am pleased to see how scientists from different countries effectively and enthusiastically worked together toward a common goal, and that the Russian-Ukrainian observatory in Terskol was able to contribute to the effort. In the future I am confident that such international observing campaigns will become common practice.”
In the event that a Near-Earth asteroid might actually pose a threat the Earth, it is good to know that all the tracking, monitoring and alert systems we have in place are in good working order. If we are going to trust the fate of human civilization (and possibly all life on Earth) to an advanced warning system, it just makes sense to have all the bugs worked out beforehand!